In a move that I predicted on this blog 18 months ago (ok, really I just called out that a colleague had predicted it, but I shall take my prognostication credits where I can), Google has announced that it's going to be using the AdSense network to distribute new episodes (I suppose you could use that terrible neologism, webisodes) of a web-only cartoon from Seth McFarlane (he of Family Guy fame), called "Seth McFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy".
The new program gives a different spin to the Google Content Network, the name that Google has used up until now to describe the AdSense ad network. Monetization will come from in-stream ads, but also from customized animated ads for brands themselves, presumably infused with MacFarlane's trademark dark/smutty humor.
The New York Times (a member of the Google Content Network) gushes about the new development, describing it as a "a bold step into the distribution business, one that, if successful, will surely send shock waves through the entertainment business". But it has a point - by turning AdSense units into real content (albeit content that is designed to generate clicks), Google is in one sense going into competition with its own AdSense content partners - the thousands of websites which host Google ads, and make money from clicks on those ads.
Any publisher who runs ads on their site has to navigate the fine line between making the site's content successful (which will draw users back in future, and keep them clicking around the site), and making the site's ads successful (which pay the bills, but carry users away from the site). This balance is challenging enough when the ads are obviously ads, but when the ad units start to carry compelling content from people like Seth MacFarlane, it could detract from the site's own content. The short-term payoff for the publisher might be elevated click revenue from these webisodes (perhaps we should call them "adisodes"?), but the long-term effect may be decreased engagement with the site's own content, and dissatisfaction from advertisers that the publisher is working with. Only time will tell.
[By the way, my favorite Family Guy character is Stewie, of course. Is there any other choice?]